Monday, May 7, 2012

An Open Letter to United Airlines


Dear United,

You suck.

I realize I’m not the first to express this sentiment and, God knows, I won’t be the last, but it has to be said.

I could (and will) cite a half-dozen examples from my recent trip to Peru – incidents so exaggerated they sound like sitcom plotlines (although not so amusing) - but here’s one that captures the whole problem: we were in Newark, already four hours delayed after engine troubles in Lima. The gate attendant asked for a couple sitting together to volunteer to move to an exit row. My wife and I were seated behind each other in the exit rows, not a great way to finish a trip but better than hitchhiking on the NJ Turnpike. (Don’t think I didn’t consider that!) So I thought I’d wander up and see if by moving us together it might help, as well as allowing us finish our trip side-by-side instead of with a view of each other’s skulls. I explained our situation. Her response? “That doesn’t help me.”

Let me repeat that: “That doesn’t help me.”

That’s the issue right there. Your airline isn’t there to serve us; we’re here to serve you, to provide revenue, to suffer through flight delays and surly employees and jammed cabins, and to do it all without complaining because what else are we going to do? Not travel? Hire a private jet? Drive for 48 hours?

And just to stick it in our faces, I had to watch a video (repeatedly since we took four flights) of your CEO talking about how you’re “improving the onboard product.” Aside from a brief mention of bigger overhead bins, it was all about providing more flatbed seating.

Guess what? Most of us sitting back in cattle class can’t afford (or don’t travel enough to accumulate the required points) to fly first-class. The closest we come to “flatbed seating” is trying to find a place to spread our exhausted bodies on the terminal floor or airport couches as we suffer through inevitable flight delays.

As for those sitcom incidents, let’s start at the beginning, with being unable to print boarding passes at home for reasons not explained. We arrived at Logan, located the right terminal (since you’re now spread over two terminals thanks to the Continental merger) and tried the self check-in. The screen told us to wait for a customer service rep. So we waited. And waited. There were a couple of people behind the counter but they were some sort of subcontractors, not United employees so they couldn’t help us. Eventually we gave up on anyone at the counter noticing the big flashing light and cancelled the transaction.

Once an actual human at the counter started to help us, however, I suddenly found myself missing the computer. She was a total space cadet, so busy trying to tell other people what to do, how to manipulate the ridiculous, archaic reservation system, and staring around the terminal in a trance for reasons beyond all comprehension (“Are we keeping you from something?,” I wanted to ask) that it took ten minutes to get our boarding passes and our luggage checked.

I think we made it the rest of the way to Newark and then to Lima without incident. The flight attendant’s continuous hectoring of people to move into the plane and sit down on the Newark leg grated on my nerves a little. I understand her frustration – I’ve wanted to wring people’s necks as they screw around in the aisle – but at the same time, I can’t blame people for not wanting to trust their baggage with you. (I once left two bags side-by-side at Logan. One went to San Jose, my intended destination; the other to Heathrow – and then to San Jose via Boston, LaGuardia, and Los Angeles. Oh, and the TSA – another group of geniuses – searched the bag at LAX. Sorry, boys, but by that point the bag had already been on four different flights. If there’d been a bomb in it, it would have gone off a long time ago.)

Coming back from Lima, the fun really began. We boarded (again accompanied by repeated exhortations from the flight attendant who I swear was on coke as she was speaking so rapidly that she was incomprehensible in both English and Spanish), pulled back from the gate – and sat there. And sat there. Eventually the captain came on the intercom and mentioned something about one of the engines shutting down unexpectedly.

I found this somewhat concerning (and since I was sitting right by the engine, I found myself lifting my window shade every once in awhile when we were airborne, just to, you know, check that the damn thing was still there).

So we had to pull back into the gate while they found a mechanic to look into it. I, mercifully, slept through most of this (thank God for sleep aids) but my wife suffered through the whole three-hour delay, during which there were only two or three announcements and she was left with the impression that most of the delay was due to bureaucratic paper shuffling (as I’m sure everyone had to cover their asses).

I missed the dinner service but the morning food service was entertaining. The cokehead flight attendant must have recharged because she was in full blather mode. One of her colleagues wandered up and down the aisle like Aunt Ida at a family picnic, putting random things on a meal cart and spilling stuff on the floor. This same woman also berated the people in the first row in economy for not realizing that they had TV sets in the armrests of their seats (since their row is by the plane door, they didn’t have seats in front of them to hold the individual entertainment units). “Why didn’t you ask someone?” and “I feel sad” were two of the more helpful things that came from her mouth.

We missed our Newark-Boston connection, of course. You had helpfully rebooked us already. We just had to find the transfer agent, a challenging task give that the only transfer desk we could find was labeled “International transfers” and we were transferring domestically. We finally asked a baggage attendant who pointed us in the right direction (and was the only normally friendly, non-deranged United employee we met during the whole experience).

The woman at the transfer desk 1) never met our eyes, 2) never once apologized for the delay, and 3) performed her tasks with all the humanity and feeling of a robot. She failed to mention that we were seated behind each other rather than in the same row.

I’ve already mentioned that gate attendant in Newark. The next and final “fun” experience (after the inevitable badgering of passengers during the loading process) was arriving in Logan, watching the priority baggage come tumbling down, not seeing our bags among them (they had been tagged “priority” in Newark, presumably because of the delay) or among the regular baggage, and eventually realizing that they weren’t going to appear. We stood in line with a few other folks at the United baggage counter only to be told by the woman at the counter (a woman with such an unflappable and deranged smile on her face that I’m sure she’d overmedicated that morning) that they’d helpfully shipped our bags on an earlier flight and they were, as she spoke, happily circling the baggage carousel – in another terminal ten minutes away. Nice of them to inform us of that only after we’d waited for 20 minutes and then stood in line for another five.

I know it must be stressful to work in the airline industry these days, especially on the planes themselves. But you know what? Boo-hoo. I’ve worked as a gas station attendant, waiter, and barista, all jobs that paid little money but featured oodles of stress. Were there times I wanted to jam a gas pump up someone’s ass or pour coffee over their head? Damn right. But I didn’t because I was being paid (however poorly) to do a job. You’re being paid to do a job, so do it. Don’t like it? Then quit. At the very least, stop complaining and start treating your customers like people, and not like inconveniences. I know people can be jerks but with the state of air travel, they’ve got reasons to be jerks and your reaction, lack of sympathy, bureaucratic posturing and just plain snottiness doesn’t help.

You can ignore this spleen-venting. You know as well as I do that I can’t do anything about it. I’m going to fly, you’re no worse than most of other U.S. airlines and so I have no choice but to continue to fly on your crappy airline. But someday someone somewhere is going to get economy air travel right. And when they do, you’re going down like the Hindenburg. We’ll desert you in droves. We economy travelers have long memories. 

2 comments:

  1. Michael P. ScottJune 16, 2012 at 8:37 AM

    Loved it! I am sitting on half a million United Miles which will probably go unused because a.) I'm old will no doubt die before UA finally gets it and b.) after endless stories such as yours, who'd WANT to fly?

    I'm hoping that you know Dave Carroll's story. If not, just Google, "United breaks guitars" and bask in the knowledge that you are not alone!

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  2. I hadn't heard of the United Breaks Guitar song. Over 12,000,000 hits. Beautiful! Thanks, Michael!

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